haggisthesecond, as enthused as I was, joined me in transit, and we both arrived promptly at the start of our Saturday trip, at The Contented Vine in Pimlico. Our group gathered around a table to drink tea and breakfast on buttery, flaky chocolate croissants from Baker and Spice. (Chocolate croissants are almost never chocolatey enough for my tastes; this was no exception, but it was still a fine croissant.) It took us a little while of reorientation to realize that the rest of our fellow chocolate tourists were all from SeventyPercent.com, the organization co-sponsoring the tours. They were there as tourists too - their company day out - and meant we had really well-informed company on our tour 'round the city. How well-informed? Well, they don't just sell chocolate. One of them was a judge for this year's Academy of Chocolate awards and could describe why a given chocolate had won, what particular features it had.
Our breakfast finished, we gathered up our bags of bottled water and the basket of spare tablets of Valrhona and Amedei chocolate (just in case we didn't have enough chocolate...), and headed off on a tour of London and its chocolates.
L'Artisan du Chocolate is a small shop just off of Sloane Square. (89 Lower Sloane Street, SW1W8DA) Its style is in keeping with the other high-end luxury shops in the neighborhood: broad glass windows, stone floor, wide glassed-in display cases with coveted objects for sale within. One of the sales assistants, later joined by a manager, dove right in, first telling us a bit about the chococolate. L'Artisan started off as a Borough Market stall before moving up into its own store. The Sloane Square outlet is its only one - but it just opened an out-of-town factory where its chocolatier, Gerard Coleman, works full time - seven days a week, usually more than twelve hours a day. Our group had general admiration for the company, one which has thus far managed to scale up without loss of attention to detail and quality in its chocolate. L'Artisan provides chocolates to Fornum and Mason, The Fat Duck, and Gordon Ramsay's local restaurant, among other places.
The tasting went fast and furious. No time for extensive notes and consideration, this was all about sampling the extent of the range, the award-winning chocolate, the elegant and the unexpected. We may have started with the liquid-centered salt caramel chocolate balls, the light dry bitterness of cocoa powder blending with the gently sweet caramel within. The South Sea pearls shown pearlescently in the shop light, a crisp layer of sugar surrounding a creamy chocolate interior, a sumptuous giftable. They make two kinds of champagne truffle: the bright, confident one I tried involved white chocolate - if I knew my champagnes better, I could probably have identified the brand by taste.
The Red Berry Jelly chocolate from the signature O collection was made from good chocolate, but the filling was negligable - then again, by this point my taste buds were under a barrage of intensity, and I may no longer have been prepared to appreciate them. I know I didn't appreciate the coconut and praline truffle, haggisthesecond's favorite. The coconut tasted stale coming right after one of the most striking pieces in L'Artisan's line: a tobacco truffle. The tobacco truffle is an innocuous square; its smoothness melts into unctuous leathery and caramel notes before an intense tingle sets in at the back of the mouth. No wonder my palate was spoiled for the coconut and praline.
I quite liked the star anise and coffee truffle, smooth and spicy, the star anise a sophisticated partner to the rich undertones of coffee. The banana and thyme truffle was fun, both flavors clear and bright; but especially with the full banana fruitiness, it struck me as a breakfast chocolate. Clear and bright doesn't describe most of L'Artisan's flavors though. Most are subtle and sophisticated, low-key and understated. They require contemplation and thought, deducing the layers of taste, analyzing the complexity. My last one was a piece of tonka bar; it smelled of green, almost piney, tasted of light-handed vanilla and spice.
L'Artisan du Chocolat makes the most sophisticated chocolate in the city. Theirs is chocolate for the gentleman's drawing room, the lady's salon, for an evening of sitting down and discussing chocolate, for working through tasting notes in a way our whirlwind tour didn't allow.
Paul A. Young is located on the other side of central London, up in Islington, just down the street from Angel station. (33 Camden Passage, N1 8EA) The purple-themed boutique reflects its neighborhood too, eclectic but tasteful, arty and interesting. It's a new store, only opened in April. The eponymous chocolatier is devoted to his shop: he lives over it, and pitched that as a commercial advantage. Customers can call late at night and know their orders will be ready first thing the next morning. The kitchen is in the basement, the shop itself in between on the ground floor.
When we arrived, the chocolatier himself was there, and invited us down into his kitchen, apologizing for the mess. Given our interest, we didn't mind in the least. Standing in the heart of the snug little kitchen, Paul Young discussed his shop and his chocolates with passion. When the shop started, it doubled as a patisserie, but this confused customers. A daily selection of brownies are now the only remnant from that initial doubling. A ripe blue cheese sat on the counter, waiting to be made into a truffle. He's known for his stilton truffles (sold out that day), but was trying a new cheese, sourced from the cheese shop down the street. The chocolatier's emphasis is on freshness, recommending that his chocolates be eaten in only three to five days, as no preservatives are used. The cheese truffles should be eaten on day of purchase.
The emphasis on freshness means that it's better to go expecting novelty than a particular chocolate. Arrive early in the day or request it in advance if you'd like to try one of his famous marmite truffles. Variety is also important; he's constantly experimenting with new and striking flavor combinations. There was a London Ale truffle available when I was there, for example.
We started with one of the plain dark chocolate truffles, a rich showcase for what good dark chocolate can taste of, its sweetly bitter depths rolled in a dusting of cocoa powder. The oak-smoked sea salt caramel truffles were extraordinary, the oaked salt complementing the dark chocolate, and working far better for me than young oak-seasoned wines ever do. The wasabi truffle had a light bite of horseradish suffusing the ganache. We also tried a chocolate-dipped roasted chocolate bean, the cooly smooth dry bean reduced to nibs between our teeth, bitter and crunchy and complicated.
I'll have to do another chocolate tour in the winter, once hot chocolate season is in full effect, for most of the chocolateries of London apparently serve their own. This was the only one we tried on the tour though. Melted seventy percent chocolate, sweetened with sugar and a touch of vanilla and spices, was watered down to liquidity. No milk. Although not my idea of great hot chocolate per se, I did walk away thinking that this hot chocolate was the single best expression of what chocolate tastes like that the day had to offer. Molten smooth chocolate, conveyed by water, immediately covered the inside of my mouth, covering all taste buds. It tasted of cherry-tinged pumpkin, fruity and dark.
The store offers a wide range of innovative products, including the molds used to emboss a new line of chocolate bars with complex tonalities and detailed designs. Artistic and intelligent variety is the emphasis, in keeping with the neighborhood. I want to go back and catch the stilton truffle in stock. Meanwhile, I loved the oak-smoked sea salt caramel truffles.
Lunch break - we stopped for a refreshing and light lunch at a gastropub near Regent's Street. Salad was exactly what I needed after that much chocolate. Much as it was good - we were hungry and the break was much needed. Chocolate overdose had been briefly a problem after L'Artisan gave us whole truffle after whole truffle. We insisted on pieces of truffle after that at all our stops, just enough for a taste without overwhelming us in quantity.
Rococo is widely credited with introduced good chocolate to Britain. The first shop opened in 1983, and has recently expended into a second one, the one we went to. (45 Marylebone High Street, W1U 5HG) Their specialty is flavor-infused chocolate bars, which they not only sell in their shops but through other outlets as well, including Waitrose. Their trademark look is wrappers whose patterns are reproduced from catalogs of 1850s chocolate moulds. Much like the signature pattern, the shop is fairly fussy, tied up bags of chocolate nubbins, decorative containers and festively decorated shelves. Behind the counter are displayed the whole wide variety of chocolates they sell. The sales assistant took us on a rapid tour of a swathe of their flavors. (Sensibly, they have pre-crumbled bars available in sealed tasting containers for customer sampling.)
We started fairly sensible, with a comparative tasting of different chocolate types, working our way from a 60% blend to two 65% ones (one organic, one not; one more memorably redolent of herbal notes), up through a spicy 70%. We tried a plain dark chocolate truffle and a pink peppercorn bar. I quite liked the bright taste of the dark chocolate-based basil-lime bar, enough to take one home. The dark chocolate chilli bar was spicy, a fiery build which left us needing the contrast and comfort of the cardamon white chocolate bar. Its smooth creaminess melted away the spice, coating it safely into innocuousness.
We went on to yet more plain chocolate variants, this time two different Granada bars, one from normal production, the other from beans damaged by Hurrican Emily. The normal one was leathery and liquoricey. Continuing the theme, the salesassistant brought ought dark chocolate cups filled with Granada rum. After all the chocolate, a sip of rum was refreshing - but the combination of sharp alcohol and bitter chocolate was too much all at once, a sharpness which only plenty of water counterbalanced. Overwhelmed by our whirlwind tasting extravaganza, we left for our next destination. Afterwards, fellow tourists commented that our tasting hadn't shown off Rococo's strengths, the range and ingenuity of its flavor-infused bars. We couldn't fault them on their generousity however - not only had we tasted an amazing thirteen different chocolates, but they sent us away with gift bags.
Rococo's slightly fussy store means that it's a place of discovery. It takes time to look around, to take in all the odds and ends and variety of products tucked away here and there. But the heart of the store lies behind the counter, truffle and bar displays which show off dozens of varieties of chocolates, the chocolates which founded the increasingly vibrant chocolate scene which London today offers.
The Chocolate Society was meant to be our second hot chocolate stop, but it was already closed.
La Maison du Chocolat, near Piccadilly Circus, is the lone London outpost of a modest chain of five Parisian chocolate shops. (45-6 Piccadilly, W1J 0DS) Stepping in, it is immediately apparent that this shop aims for the sophisticated shopper. The wide marble floor separates the various chocolate-filled counters where various tidily dressed sales assistants wait to help. Payment is made at yet another location within the store. It is the sort of shop one must learn how to use, or at least be prepared to ask for instructions, an experienced best enjoyed by confident shoppers.
We were there as a group, and thus didn't have to navigate the uncertainties of how to use the shop. A new manager came to help us. With our tour guide's input, two truffles were picked for us to sample, precut as we wanted them to be. The Quito bar was a somewhat generic blend of four chocolates, a milky blend although the 60-70% mix didn't include much if any milk as an ingredient. The Salvador truffle was more interesting: the dark chocolate and raspberry were a good match for each other, neither overpowering the other.
The chocolates are competent, often good (I've tried their chocolate nut bark before), but they didn't stand up to the others we tried that day for a number of reasons. One may have been the two chocolates we happened to try. Another was the newness of the manager - he couldn't answer our questions and had to look up what all the truffles were as he went. Indeed, the sales assistanst were prone to repeating shop clichés about their chocolate. ("A recipe improved for five years before being brought to market.") But another factor was built in to the shop. All the chocolates were named - and named such that knowing their name rarely said a thing about what the flavors were. It's a small but alienating step when a customer must ask about each and every chocolate to find out what they mean - and that's after they've figured out how to use the shop.
La Maison du Chocolat is aimed at high-end high street shoppers, mainstream sophisticates. In seasons, they're a very fine source of candied chestnuts, and I'll be back to try their two kinds of hot chocolate in the next few months. Our brief chocolate tour experience, however, didn't live up to the interest level provided by other chocolates during the day.
Melt was our final stop of the day. (59 Ledbury Road, W11 2AA) An airy white shop out in Notting Hill, the curved counter leads visitors inward, to the back of the shop and the open kitchen where the shops's goodies are made. It's a new store, opened earlier this year. The chocolatier and patissier, however, is very experienced indeed, coming to London as an award-winning specialist from Switzerland, Keith Hurdman. His tastes are notable different from other chocolatiers in the city: he's a big fan of milk chocolate. For all milk chocolate is effectively the national chocolate of Britain, most really good chocolate in this country is dark. Thus, Hurdman is introducing a whole new element to the the chocolate scene, complicated and quality milk chocolates.
We gathered in the back of the shop, perched on bar stools, while Hurdman's assistant handed over a bowlful of warm nougat to be pressed flat and cooled to coherency. We tried it later, buttery and rich, nutty and friendly and wonderful. We sampled slightly bitter but more sweet raspberry hearts, and coffee-and-nougat chocolates, the ultimate destination of the nougat we'd tried on its own. The smooth dark truffle with a mango-passionfruit jelly heart was sublime - the chocolate was almost gratuitous compared to the flavorsome combination of tart passionfruit and plump mango notes. I wanted more of the jelly. Toasted almond batons were clumped together with a thin, exacting coating of dark chocolate. Spiced caramel was soft was fudge, redolent with cardamon, nutmeg, cinnamon, pepper, and who knows what other spices. The feuilletine was precisely crunchy, delicate layers of crunchiness enrobed in chocolate. ("Like a KitKat", he says some customers say. But so much better.)
I'm not a big fan of milk chocolate. Much of it errs on the side of being too sweet. This is true even for extremely good milk chocolate, such as that sold at Melt. But even if I'm not going back for the chocolate, I'm definitely going back, for all the non-chocolate things which won me over. The smooth fudgey Christmas cake-like caramel; the passionfruit jelly, brought home in apricot-combined form; the chocolate-coated almond batons, toasted to light, warm crispness. The chocolate was good, but for me, some of the other things were superb.
Post official tour, we were dropped off at a subway station after saying goodbyes. The company was excellent. I couldn't have chosen more appropriate people with which to spend the day, good company all around.
A few days later, my Chocolate Week box from Chococo, a Dorset-based chocolate company arrived. It's full of award-winning truffles of theirs. Thin layers of chocolate protect smooth inner ganaches infused with decisive flavors. The espresso truffle tastes how coffee smells. Wild Thing is remarkably alcoholic, given how small it is, with an alcohol-suffused cherry at its heart. There's just a breath of spice to the Chilli Tickle truffle, a touch of honey to Bob's Bees, and a bite of ginger to the relevant truffle. C.'s completely won over by them. The flavors aren't subtle, but they're restrained. And they're really, really good.
My real tour isn't done. I haven't been to William Curley's shop in Richmond yet. ("You must", said our guide.) I only just heard about Demarquette. And I still need to go back and try all those hot chocolates which most of the shops do (I'm told) when it's a little colder out.
I didn't set out on the Chocolate Tour in search of a new favorite chocolate shop for London. (I have a favorite in Toronto, but hadn't yet done the research for London.) But based on a lovely, leisurely day of full-city chocolate tourism, I came back most excited by what Paul A. Young is doing up in Islington. The shop isn't just about novelty; it's about trying out what else works well with chocolate. And there really are some remarkable other elses.